The Arrival of Columbus in the West Indies

St. Kitts & Nevis #1 (1903)

St. Kitts & Nevis #1 (1903)

October 12th is a national holiday in many countries in the Americas and elsewhere which officially celebrates the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the West Indies on October 12, 1492. The landing is celebrated as Columbus Day in the United States, as Día de la Raza (“Day of the Race”) in many countries in Latin America and as Día de la Hispanidad and Fiesta Nacional in Spain, where it is also the religious festivity of la Virgen del Pilar. It is also celebrated as Día de las Américas (Day of the Americas) in Uruguay, as National Heroes Day in the Bahamas, as Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural (Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity) in Argentina, as Day of the Americas or Pan American Day in Belize, and as Giornata Nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo or Festa Nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo in Italy and in the Little Italys around the world. These holidays have been celebrated unofficially since the late eighteenth century and officially in various countries since the early twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, an increasing number of communities in the United States have renamed the holiday as Native American Day or Indigenous Americans Day, as the accomplishments of Christopher Columbus have become less regarded under the guise of “political correctness.”

American people have celebrated Columbus’s voyage since the colonial period. In 1792, New York City and other U.S. cities celebrated the 300th anniversary of his landing in the New World. President Benjamin Harrison called upon the people of the United States to celebrate Columbus Day on the 400th anniversary of the event. During the four hundredth anniversary in 1892, teachers, preachers, poets and politicians used Columbus Day rituals to teach ideals of patriotism. These patriotic rituals took themes such as citizenship boundaries, the importance of loyalty to the nation, and celebrating social progress.

Many Italian-Americans observe Columbus Day as a celebration of their heritage, the first occasion being in New York City on October 12, 1866. Columbus Day was first enshrined as a legal holiday in the United States through the lobbying of Angelo Noce, a first generation Italian, in Denver. The first statewide Columbus Day holiday was proclaimed by Colorado governor Jesse F. McDonald in 1905, and it was made a statutory holiday in 1907. In April 1934, as a result of lobbying by the Knights of Columbus and New York City Italian leader Generoso Pope, Congress and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed October 12 a federal holiday under the name Columbus Day.

Since 1970, the holiday has been fixed to the second Monday in October, coincidentally exactly the same day as Thanksgiving in neighboring Canada fixed since 1959. It is generally observed nowadays by banks, the bond market, the U.S. Postal Service, other federal agencies, most state government offices, many businesses, and most school districts. Some businesses and some stock exchanges remain open, and some states and municipalities abstain from observing the holiday. The traditional date of the holiday also adjoins the anniversary of the United States Navy (founded October 13, 1775), and thus both occasions are customarily observed by the Navy (and usually the Marine Corps as well) with either a 72- or 96-hour liberty period.

Actual observance varies in different parts of the United States, ranging from large-scale parades and events to complete non-observance. Most states celebrate Columbus Day as an official state holiday, though many mark it as a “Day of Observance” or “Recognition” and at least four do not recognize it at all. Most states that celebrate Columbus Day will close state services, while others operate as normal.

San Francisco claims the nation’s oldest continuously existing celebration with the Italian-American community’s annual Columbus Day Parade, which was established by Nicola Larco in 1868, while New York City boasts the largest. As in the mainland U.S., Columbus Day is a legal holiday in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. In the United States Virgin Islands, the day is celebrated as both Columbus Day and Puerto Rico Friendship Day. Virginia also celebrates two legal holidays on the day, Columbus Day and Yorktown Victory Day, which honors the final victory at the Siege of Yorktown in the Revolutionary War.

The U.S. states of Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, South Dakota, and Vermont do not recognize Columbus Day at all; however, Hawaii, South Dakota, and Vermont mark the day with an alternative holiday or observance. Hawaii celebrates Discoverers’ Day, which commemorates the Polynesian discoverers of Hawaii on the same date, the second Monday of October, though the name change has not ended protest related to the observance of Columbus’ discovery. The state government does not treat either Columbus Day or Discoverers’ Day as a legal holiday; state, city and county government offices and schools are open for business.

This year, Vermont started celebrating Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day. Because this change was made by Governor Peter Shumlin’s executive proclamation, it only applies for 2016. In the future it would have to be issued by the sitting governor on a yearly basis, or officially changed by the legislature in order to become permanent. On the other hand, South Dakota celebrates the day as an official state holiday known as Native American Day rather than Columbus Day. Oregon does not recognize Columbus Day, neither as a holiday nor a commemoration; schools and public offices remain open. Two additional states, Iowa and Nevada, do not celebrate Columbus Day as an official holiday, but the states’ respective governors are “authorized and requested” by statute to proclaim the day each year.

The city of Berkeley, California, has replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day since 1992, a move which has been followed by multiple other localities including Sebastopol and Santa Cruz, California; Dane County, Wisconsin; Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota; Seattle, Washington; Missoula, Montana; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Denver, Colorado; and Phoenix, Arizona. Various tribal governments in Oklahoma designate the day Native American Day, or name the day after their own tribe.

The date Columbus arrived in the Americas is celebrated in many countries in Latin America. The most common name for the celebration in Spanish (including in some Latin American communities in the United States) is the Día de la Raza (“day of the race” or “day of the [Hispanic] people”), commemorating the first encounters of Europeans and Native Americans. The day was first celebrated in Argentina in 1917, Venezuela and Colombia in 1921, Chile in 1922, and Mexico in 1928. The day was also celebrated under this title in Spain until 1957, when it was changed to the Día de la Hispanidad (“Hispanicity Day”), and in Venezuela until 2002, when it was changed to the Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance). Originally conceived of as a celebration of Hispanic influence in the Americas, as evidenced by the complementary celebrations in Spain and Latin America, Día de la Raza has come to be seen by indigenous activists throughout Latin America as a counter to Columbus Day; a celebration of the native races and cultures and of the resistance against the arrival of Europeans in the Americas.

In the U.S. Día de la Raza has served as a time of mobilization for pan-ethnic Latino activists, particularly in the 1960s. Since then, La Raza has served as a periodic rallying cry for Hispanic activists. The first Hispanic March on Washington occurred on Columbus Day in 1996. The name has remained in the largest Hispanic social justice organization, the National Council of La Raza.

Colombia, the only country in the world with a name originated from Columbus himself, celebrates El día de la Raza y de la Hispanidad and is taken as an opportunity to celebrate the encounter of “the two worlds” and to reflect on the richness that the racial diversity has brought to the culture.

Between 1921 and 2002, Venezuela celebrated Día de la Raza along with many other Latin American nations. The original holiday was officially established in 1921 under President Juan Vicente Gómez. In 2002, under president Hugo Chávez, the name was changed to Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance) to commemorate the Indigenous peoples’ resistance to European settlement. On October 12, 2004 a crowd of pro-government activists toppled the statue of Christopher Columbus in Caracas and sprayed allusive graffiti over its pedestal.

Costa Rica changed the official holiday from Día de la Raza to Día de las Culturas (Day of the cultures) in 1994 to recognize the mix of European, American, African and Asian cultures that helped to compose Costa Rican (and Latin American) culture. Some Caribbean countries also observe holidays related to Columbus Day. In Belize, October 12 is celebrated as Day of the Americas or Pan American Day. In the Bahamas, it was formerly known as Discovery Day, until 2001 when it was replaced with National Heroes Day.

Since the eighteenth century, many Italian communities in the Americas have observed the arrival of Columbus as a celebration of their heritage; Christopher Columbus (whose original, Italian name is Cristoforo Colombo) was an Italian explorer, citizen of the Republic of Genoa. In Italy, Columbus Day has been officially celebrated since 2004, named Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo. The Lega Navale Italiana has created a Regata di Colombo as a celebration of the Columbus achievement. Italians have celebrated Columbus by naming after him many civilian and military ships, like the ocean liner Cristoforo Colombo.

Since 1987, Spain has celebrated the anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas as its Fiesta Nacional or “National Day”. Previously, Spain had celebrated the day as Día de la Hispanidad, emphasizing Spain’s ties with the Hispanidad, the international Hispanic community. In 1981, a royal decree established the Día de la Hispanidad as a national holiday. However, in 1987 the name was changed to Fiesta Nacional, and October 12 became one of two national celebrations, along with Constitution Day on Decembe. Spain’s “national day” had moved around several times during the various regime changes of the 20th century; establishing it on the day of the international Columbus celebration was part of a compromise between conservatives, who wanted to emphasize the status of the monarchy and Spain’s history, and Republicans, who wanted to commemorate Spain’s burgeoning democracy with an official holiday. Since 2000, October 12 has also been Spain’s Day of the Armed Forces, celebrated each year with a military parade in Madrid. Other than this, however, the holiday is not widely or enthusiastically celebrated in Spain; there are no other large-scale patriotic parades, marches, or other events, and the observation is generally overshadowed by the feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar (Fiestas del Pilar).

Opposition to Columbus Day dates to at least the nineteenth century where activists had sought to eradicate Columbus Day celebrations because of its association with immigrants and the Knights of Columbus. Some non-Catholics were afraid it was being used to expand Catholic influence. By far the more common opposition today, decrying Columbus’s and Europeans’ actions against the indigenous populations of the Americas, did not gain much traction until the latter half of the twentieth century. This opposition was led by Native Americans and expanded upon by left-wing political parties, though it has become more mainstream. Surveys conducted in 2013 and 2015 found 26% to 38% of American adults not in favor of celebrating Columbus Day.

There are different strands of this critique, which are interrelated. The first refers primarily to the indigenous populations and their treatment during the European colonization of the Americas which followed Columbus’s discovery. Some are criticized for lack of historical rigor or consistency in their critique. The opponents of Columbus Day celebrations are considered to fail to distinguish between the diverse forms of European colonization, the events that took place in the different territories, or the widely varying treatment and rights given to the indigenous populations by the different powers. Some groups, especially in Spanish America are criticized for their allegedly biased discourse, which ignores the early forms of humanitarian laws for colonized peoples, decreed by the Crown of Castille in 1512, including the prohibition of slavery.

The treatment of indigenous peoples did however vary greatly depending on the historical period and the colonizing power. Some groups such as the American Indian Movement, have argued that the responsibility of contemporary governments and their citizens for allegedly ongoing acts of genocide against Native Americans are masked by positive Columbus myths and celebrations. These critics argue that a particular understanding of the legacy of Columbus has been used to legitimize their actions, and it is this misuse of history that must be exposed. A second strain of the criticism of Columbus Day focuses on the character of Columbus himself.

In the summer of 1990, 350 representatives from American Indian groups from all over the hemisphere, met in Quito, Ecuador, at the first Intercontinental Gathering of Indigenous People in the Americas, to mobilize against the quincentennial celebration of Columbus Day. The following summer, in Davis, California, more than a hundred Native Americans gathered for a follow-up meeting to the Quito conference. They declared October 12, 1992, “International Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People”. The largest ecumenical body in the United States, the National Council of Churches, called on Christians to refrain from celebrating the Columbus quincentennial, saying, “What represented newness of freedom, hope, and opportunity for some was the occasion for oppression, degradation and genocide for others”.

I have collected Columbus on stamps for nearly forty years — ever since I received my mother’s childhood album as a birthday gift and finding it included two of the 1893 stamps the United States issued to mark World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This is a topical that I enjoy for the history involved as well as for the interesting stamps. I try to avoid the controversy that exists regarding Columbus and the holiday. Today, I include the first postage issue of the British Crown Colony of St. Kitts and Nevis, located in the Leeward Islands chain of the Lesser Antilles, West Indies.

The first Europeans to see and name the islands were the Spanish under Christopher Columbus, who sighted the islands in 1493 during his second voyage. He named Saint Kitts Sant Jago (Saint James). However, misinterpretations of maps by subsequent Spanish explorers led Saint Kitts to be named San Cristobal (Saint Christopher), a name originally applied to Saba twenty miles north. Nevis was named Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, or “Our Lady of the Snows”, because the wreath of white clouds that usually covers the top of its volcanic peak reminded the Spaniards of the ancient Catholic miracle Our Lady of the Snows.

Scott #1 was printed by Thomas de la Rue & Company of London using typography, bearing the Crown CA watermark and perforated 14. The ½ penny green and violet stamp portrays Columbus looking for land.

 

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One thought on “The Arrival of Columbus in the West Indies

  1. Pingback: St. Kitts & Nevis #M1 (1916) – A Stamp A Day

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